Ambition without competence may be Johnson’s undoing

Poster of Boris Johnson saying 'Incompetent' Photo credit: Led By Donkeys
Photo credit: Led By Donkeys

Has Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham opened the very can of worms Number 10 would prefer to keep sealed?

There is evidence galore that the Cummings-driven tendency in Johnson’s government is doing all it can, small step by small step, to increase control of the nation from the centre, reducing any autonomy still held by local authorities, city mayors and even devolved assemblies. This government eschews consultation with devolved administrations and opposition parties, making for the least unifying leadership of recent history, even when faced with a national emergency.

Johnson refuses to allow Scotland a new referendum on escaping Westminster’s clutches. His Test and Trace regime is run by private sector adherents, bypassing local authorities’ considerable public health expertise. He refuses to work with on-the-ground charities to provide meals to deprived children in his newly acquired Red Wall seats. He threatens the autonomy of London’s mayor in running the capital’s transport.

How strange it is to clasp control and implementation ever more to the chest when that chest has proved so empty when it comes to competence, as evidenced by Brexit negotiation, Brexit preparation, Covid-19 response, procurement of PPE and more. And all the while, these same disruptors deliberately hollow out Whitehall’s long-established expertise.

So why? Does this merely reflect an insatiable hunger for power or is there something more sinister behind it? The latter seems more likely when examining how badly these centralised activities have been run.

Instead of making use of the professionals employed and trained over years to do the sort of work so pressingly needed, contracts have been awarded, behind closed doors and without either parliamentary scrutiny or normal procurement standards, to companies lacking any obvious qualifications for the work. Contracted companies have included large outsourcing agencies and micro non-trading start-ups, with one common factor: connections with the Johnson cabinet. Astronomical contract values seem plucked out of the air without detail or scrutiny. There should certainly be concern about conflicts of interest.

A second common thread lies in the fact that these contractors are all in the private sector, even though their work may be misleadingly branded to look like NHS service: for example PPE destined for health workers and systems named, erroneously, “NHS Test and Trace” or “NHS Covid19”. Huge sums have been thrown to the companies and individuals appointed to manage these programmes, while their main efforts seem to have gone into enriching shareholders and creating shadow parts of the NHS no longer publicly accountable. This represents another step in the privatisation of the NHS.

Harvard Poli-Sci PhD student Sophie Hill has created an interactive tracker tool aptly named “My Little Crony”

So what has this to do with devolution? It might not be apparent were it not for the issue of competence. Organising this sell-off – or sell-out – is a clique of people driven by an idea, but not gifted with either experience or competence. The idea in question concerns the diversion of taxpayers’ money into private hands, chosen for their links to the cabinet and support for Brexit, rather than their ability to do the work required.  

This conspiracy has gradually been revealed through the failures of the private contractors and the consequent waste of taxpayer funds. As if this was not bad enough, it has also increased the number of lives lost. The failures of competence and procurement, and bypassing of the public health system have led to avoidable deaths from Covid-19, estimated to run into thousands.

As the government ignored the advice of SAGE scientists and instead tried to impose its ideas on how to reduce infections in disparate regions of the country, confidence in its decisions, methods and financial support have come under increasingly mistrustful scrutiny by local civic leaders, the public and occasionally even by normally compliant media outlets.

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So while Whitehall tries to claim a tighter hold on opportunities for services it can outsource, those who will be most affected by its incompetence are increasingly facing down their decisions. Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, Andy Burnham and even footballer Marcus Rashford have gained support as they have tried to regain control of what is done to – and in – their communities. These individuals have shown a greater propensity to collaborate across party lines than Downing Street, which time and again has put party gain ahead of the common good. They have also shown considerably more creativity, skill and leadership than those at the centre of power who wish to bypass them – witness the second Johnson U-turn on the charitable provision of free meals for underprivileged schoolchildren during holidays, and the superior performance of local public health departments compared to the costly and shambolic Serco and Deloitte methods. This may make devolution more attractive for communities fed up with hostile binary tribalism.

Perhaps the current PM’s drive to centralise will be the very factor to stimulate devolution’s next stage, exposing as it has how ambition without competence must fail. Johnson claims to be a Unionist but may be presiding over both the break-up of the Union and driving up demand from regions for greater autonomy from London’s paralysing grip.

Maybe this will be his legacy.

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